Random thoughts of a Maidenhead man

Plane Spotting Made Simple

Posted in Guilty Pleasures | Aviation on Thursday 23 June 2011

OK, I admit it. I am a bit of an aviation buff and like spotting planes occasionally.

Given where I live, it's not difficult. Maidenhead, just 10 miles West of one of the busiest airports in the world (Heathrow Airport), has plenty of planes to spot. Especially when the aircraft are landing Easterly, when they can be seen lining up for their final approach often only 60 seconds apart.

And Cox Green, my suburb of Maidenhead, is right next to White Waltham Airfield, allegedly the largest grass airfield in civilian use in Europe. So, plenty of smaller planes flying circuits too.

Now, a few years ago we had WebTrack Heathrow which enables you to check plane arrivals and departures in the past. Interesting enough, and I used it a bit, but you had to note down what you see with a date and time and then look it up a day or so later to identify it. So, not very convenient.

Then along came What an amazing website. Find your location on the google map and view all the air traffic above you in real time. Click a moving plane image and see the plane's type, height, speed, route and even registration number.

The site uses data from ADS-B broadcasts from airliners. These automatic broadcasts are listened to by spotter's radios and decoded and then this information is shared on the internet.

The result of this crowd sourcing is a huge database of rapidly changing location information for each aircraft that is within listening range of at least one enthusiast. And convert this information into mapping data that overlays Google maps.

The result is a real time map on your computer screen of what's flying around. Something that a few years ago would have been mind blowing.

Can you tell what it is yet?

So, late tonight I am out in the garden and hear a distant roar from above. I look up and see a plane at cruising altitude travelling roughly East. By the time I get to the website I reckon it's gone past Slough and heading over West London.

And from that information alone it's easy to spot. Here's a screen shot from showing "my" plane a few minutes later. It's over Colchester now but you can see it passed over Maidenhead.

The website shows the ADS-B information and from that you can see the plane was an Airbus A330-200 and you can see its route using ICAO codes - Punta Cana Airport in the Dominican Republic to Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow.

It tells you the flight number, in this case AFL338 - so it's a Russian Aeroflot flight. And it even shows the registration of the aircraft - and a quick Google search will normally throw up photos of the actual plane and, in this case even a video of it landing.

Amazing what you can find out about a little dot in the sky at night.

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